Paul Marshall defines Sharia, quite simply and correctly, as “Islamic law.” When asked in a recent FrontPage interview to explain the difference between Sharia and the “extreme Sharia” to which he refers in the title of his new book, Radical Islam’s Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Sharia, he responded: “Muslims mean very different things when they use the term. Sharia’s root meaning is “˜the way” or “˜path to the water” and to most Muslims it implies doing God’s will, not necessarily imitating the Taliban.” And these different things are not necessarily compatible: “In Indonesia,” according to Marshall, “polls show 67 percent support for “˜Sharia” but only 7 percent objecting to a woman head of state. There it seems to means something like the American polling term “˜moral values.” Polling in Iraq shows a similar pattern: 80% support for Sharia combined with 80% support for equality of men and women.”
It was this elasticity in the popular understanding of the word that led Marshall to coin the term “extreme Sharia.” “To many Muslims,” he explained, “criticism of Sharia as such sounds strange because, much as they might disagree with stoning adulterous women or cutting off the hands of thieves, the word implies “˜justice” or “˜goodness.” So I use the phrase “˜extreme Sharia” to describe the laws implemented by the Saudis, Iran and others throughout the world.”
Very well. But does “extreme Sharia” actually exist as an entity distinct from the Sharia that simply upholds justice and goodness? Or, despite the connotations the word may have for common people, does it actually have a quite specific meaning in Islamic tradition “” a meaning that would of necessity come into play whenever Sharia was implemented? Marshall and the other contributors to Radical Islam’s Rules imply the existence of a form of Sharia that upholds justice and goodness without resorting to draconian punishments. They seem to hold to the idea that there is a form of Sharia that is basically good “” or at least free of the destructive features of Saudi and Iranian Sharia “” when he speaks of Islamic states imposing “retrograde Sharia law”; “the most reactionary version of Islamic law, Sharia”; and of “the destructiveness of this form of Sharia.” But this creates an immediate conceptual problem: the extreme form of something is only an intensification of tendencies that were already present within it. If extreme Sharia is flawed from the standpoint of universal rights and freedoms, then so also must be Sharia itself.
What’s more, Marshall suggests in his introduction to Radical Islam’s Rules that Sharia becomes benign not when it is interpreted in some pristine form, free of Wahhabi and other deleterious influences, but when it is moderated by elements that do not arise from Sharia at all. “Muslim polities,” he explains, “have”¦usually adopted local and customary law in addition to directly Islamic jurisprudence and, in recent centuries, have borrowed from other legal traditions, especially Western ones.” Extreme Sharia stands in direct opposition to this tendency: “In contrast to this, the Saudis, the source of much of the spread of extreme shari”a throughout the world, seek to entrench only one version of shari”a, an extreme literalist view that they claim is true Hanbali law.”
It would seem from this not only that “extreme Sharia” is Sharia purged of salutary non-Sharia influences from the West, but a parochial, virulent form of the law devised by fanatical Saudi Wahhabis. But do the other major schools of Sunni Sharia jurisprudence (the Maliki, Hanafi, and Shafi”i schools), as well as the Shi”ite Jafari school, actually reject the elements of Sharia that Marshall specifies as particularly characteristic of the “extreme” version? In the FrontPage interview he enumerates as elements of “extreme” Sharia “stoning adulterous women or cutting off the hands of thieves,” as well as restrictions on “religious freedom and freedom of conscience,” “the status of women,” and “the legal process, especially equality before the law.” But unfortunately, these are not matters on which the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence disagree. While a case may be made that the Saudi Hanbalis and Iranian Shi”ites are virtually alone in their determination to implement and enforce such strictures in the modern age, it is misleading “” extremely misleading “” to suggest that such elements are inventions of Saudi Wahhabis, and do not exist in mainstream Sharia jurisprudence.
Even some of the essays in Radical Islam’s Rules demonstrate that the distinction between Sharia and “extreme Sharia” is not as clear as perhaps Marshall wishes it were. In his essay “Shari”a in Pakistan,” Maarten G. Barends notes that “one of the features of classical shari”a is the provision that Muslims cannot change their religion and that, if they do, they face a death sentence.” So is this restriction on freedom of conscience a feature of benign Sharia or “extreme” Sharia? Is classical Sharia extreme? Or did the Hanafi jurists of Pakistan learn this precept from the Saudi Hanbali Wahhabis?
In fact, the Muslim Prophet Muhammad’s famous dictum, Baddala deenahu, faqtuluhu “” “If anyone changes his religion, kill him” “” is amply attested in Islamic tradition (cf. Bukhari vol. 9, bk. 84, no. 57), forms the foundation for this restriction on freedom of conscience, and has never been considered negotiable by the great majority of Islamic jurists throughout history. Were they all “extreme”? Of course, like any law it was not universally enforced or even always on the books: journalist Stephen Schwartz, who has contributed an essay to Radical Islam’s Rules, has contended that “the Ottoman caliphate abolished death sentences for apostasy from Islam more than two centuries ago,” although “Western media still widely report that all Muslims believe the penalty for apostasy must be death.” However, the facts are otherwise: according to the Turkish historian BÃ¼lent Ã–zdemir, the death penalty for apostasy was only abolished by the Ottomans (and replaced by imprisonment) in 1844, under pressure from the British. So here again the traditional Sharia provision gave way only in the face of Western influence “” a welcome influence, to be sure. Nevertheless, it remains true that the Sharia death penalty for apostasy was not moderated because of the force of some internal component of the Sharia itself, in the way that the abolitionist movement in the Christian world arose from Christian principles of the dignity of human beings, which ultimately won out over the Bible’s apparent tolerance of slavery.
Why does this matter? Why not posit the existence of “extreme Sharia” and call upon Muslims to adopt more moderate forms of Islamic law? Ultimately because this approach does not address the deep roots within traditional, mainstream Sharia of so many precepts that violate universal notions of human rights. One result could be Western non-Muslims working to help Muslims implement what the Westerners believe will be benign, moderate Sharia, only to find that this moderate construct has no strength or vital force to keep the “extremists” at bay.
A peculiar unreality now dominates American public discourse about Islam. Those who traffic in comforting fictions “” such as but not limited to the distinction between “extreme” and classical Sharia “” are lauded in the mainstream media and consulted by the powerful, while those who dare to point out obvious but uncomfortable facts are dismissed and derided as a “fringe.” However, it is the nature of the truth that it will someday, one way or the other, make itself manifest; and on that day, those who have not dared to make it known, whether because of political correctness, fear, or a desire for personal gain, will be relegated to irrelevance.